Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Surviving Toxic Family Functions

No matter the time of year, you don't have to suffer through family gatherings.

Public Domain/Absolutely Free Photo
What to do with this family?
Source: Public Domain/Absolutely Free Photo

Being with family can be stressful at any time of year. People who might not normally interact are thrust together at family gatherings. There may be alcohol thrown into the mix, increasing the potential for an unhappy event. What can you do to make your family events the best they can be? Here are a few tips.

You Don't Have to Attend

Forget all the admonishments people give that "this is your family" and you "should" do this or that. Toxic is toxic. If it is dangerous or genuinely unhealthy for you to spend time with your family, don't do it. If people are abusing substances at a gathering or are known to become violent, you are under no obligation to go or, if the situation devolves, to stay. Your health and safety is paramount. Take care of yourself first.

Find Something Meaningful to Do

If you choose not to attend a family gathering, don't just sit at home. What can you do to bring hope and joy to others? If you're in a 12-step program, go to a 12-step meeting so that others can benefit from your experience. Deliver meals to those who can't get out. Shovel a neighbor's driveway so they can get to their function. Make soup for the homeless. Visit someone who might not get many visitors. Sing holiday songs on the street corner. There are plenty of things to do that will help you and others have a wonderful day.

Limit Interactions

If you go to a family event, at a larger gathering, it may be possible to limit your interaction with a particular person who rubs you the wrong way. This might not be a health and safety issue. Maybe your uncle's political views rankle you. Perhaps your aunt boasts too much about your cousin who is doing "amazing things" or wants to show you 7,000 pictures of her cats. It's OK to be polite, listen for a minute, and move on. It's great to be courteous and interested, then hear about what other people in the family are doing.

Limiting interactions can also mean staying at a gathering for only a short period of time. Some families might have people drop in and leave throughout the day. If it's comfortable for you to spend the day with your family, by all means enjoy your family! But if it is troubling to spend hours watching ball games or if tempers start to flare after an extended period of time, keep your time at the event limited.

Help Someone Else

Sometimes, we can get caught up in our own thoughts. The holidays are a good time to be of service. Ask whomever is hosting the function if you can help out in the kitchen or make a plate for an elderly person who is struggling. Does someone need to take the dog for a walk? Is there a child who wants someone to play with or would like to be read a story? Look for opportunities to be of service to those around you.

Don't Take the Bait

We all know people who want to bait us. If there is something about us that seems to upset another person, it's our choice whether or not to get into an argument. It doesn't matter what they say. We can change the subject. "I appreciate your opinion, Stewart. Jane, I hear that your nephew just earned a scholarship for his science project." Defuse the situation whenever possible by not engaging with people who want to be negative. Walking away works too.

Stand Up for Yourself and Others

Changing family dynamics sometimes involves taking a stand. Did your nephew recently come out and someone in the family has a problem with it? Is your cousin conspicuously absent from the get-together because she's in rehab? If someone is picking on a person present or bashing someone absent, respectfully and firmly step in. "I for one think it's great that Debra is in rehab and doing her best to get her life together." Part of being a family—blood or otherwise—is providing one another with support.

Family dynamics can be tough to navigate. This holiday season, or any time of year, take care of yourself by setting boundaries and taking actions that will best serve your mental health.

More from Psychology Today

More from Constance Scharff Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today